'The damage was already done': Some LGBTQ advocates say misconduct claims doomed Morse's bid to upset Neal

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks to reporters Tuesday following his defeat in the race for the Massachusetts 1st Congressional District.

NORTH ADAMS — Although a group that accused Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse of inappropriate behavior with college students later apologized for its role in aiding "homophobic attacks," for some LGBTQ advocates it was too little too late.

"The damage was already done because some people take the headline and run with it," Drew Herzig, who serves on the Pittsfield Human Rights Commission and helps organize the Live Out Loud Community Conference.

LGBTQ advocates say these seemingly discredited sexual misconduct claims against Morse played into homophobic stereotypes that they believe played a role in his defeat to U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal.

After Morse, challenging an incumbent he portrayed as beholden to corporate interests, lost by a 59-41 percent margin in Tuesday's Democratic primary, several observers pointed to the allegations against Morse, who is openly gay. They say the claims, released by a few Neal backers near the start of early voting, facilitated homophobic perceptions that could have cost Morse votes, as well as time spent rebuffing the claims rather than on fundraising and outreach.

Other analysts say voters, particularly in the lower Pioneer Valley, likely had already made up their minds due to familiarity with both Neal's long-standing Springfield ties and Morse's record as mayor.

College Democrats leaders at the University of Massachusetts Amherst hatched a plan to "sink" Morse's campaign as early as last October, with one member citing hopes to land an internship with Neal, the Intercept reported on Aug. 12. In a letter that generated national attention after the Massachusetts Daily Collegian publicized it on Aug. 7, the organization disinvited Morse from future events due to "inappropriate behavior." Charges included matching with students on dating apps, adding students he met at college Democrats meetings on his Instagram and having "sexual contact with college students," but made no mention of non-consensual interactions.

The group last Friday apologized to Morse for the letter and its role in aiding "homophobic attacks." Morse said he has had consensual sex with college students, none of whom were his students while he was a guest lecturer at UMass, and that he "will not apologize for being a young person, for being gay and for being single and having consensual relationships with other adults."

When told the claims were circulated by Neal supporters, one in five voters still said the allegations made them more likely to support the incumbent, according to Morse's internal polling, the Intercept reported.

"One of the smears that have been used against us forever is that we go after children, and it's such a lie," Herzig said.

Morse, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment sent Wednesday, said Tuesday that while he had his best fundraising week after the claims surfaced, elections are "won here on the ground." He criticized local media coverage of the allegations and claimed a pro-Neal advertisement many called homophobic continued to air despite an apparent retraction from the group behind it.

Some observers, however, questioned the impact the claims had on Morse's candidacy. POLITICO pundit Bill Scher called it "a thin reed" on Twitter, noting Neal had long held a large advantage in fundraising and advertising.

Matt Szafranski, editor-in-chief of Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight, said that while some voters may have been put off by Morse's relationships with college students — "which may not be fair, because it wasn't necessarily against the rules," he noted — he believes Morse's previous reputation as a public figure had significant influence on voters, at least in the lower Pioneer Valley.

"Morse has been a public figure in the lower Pioneer Valley for almost 10 years now, and he has a public image," Szafranski said. "Whether or not Neal's campaign was fairly characterizing it, I think they were pushing on an open door with many voters who may not have been particularly impressed with Morse's mayoral record ... I'm not really sure that the lack of reporting on vindication, if that's even accurate, would have made a difference."

Morse's reversal of his opposition to casinos in 2012, as well as a $45,000 payment made to an outgoing city solicitor in 2014, generated some controversy in Holyoke.

In Berkshire County, where Morse had less recognition prior to his campaign, Herzig said Morse's sexuality made him an easy target for scrutiny of his personal life. When the allegations first surfaced, Herzig — a Morse supporter — received calls from people who felt "forced to choose between supporting victims of sexual violence and supporting Morse, who has been branded as a predator," he said.

Heterosexual voters' "lack of awareness of what dating norms look like in the gay community" may have made the allegations more plausible, added MassEquality Executive Director Tanya Neslusan.

Szafranski said Neal's longstanding support in Springfield, where Neal has held elected office since 1978, also made him difficult to oust. Neal received nearly twice Morse's vote total in Springfield.

"People have the impression that he is going to bat for the city and the surrounding communities in and beyond Springfield," Szafranski said.

In Pittsfield, while Morse narrowly won among in-person voters, Neal received nearly twice Morse's vote tally in early voting, WAMC reported. Some cited the data as evidence that the allegations swayed those who voted before additional information came to light, while others said it showed Morse got a boost from increased funding and support after the allegations backfired.

The university told The Eagle on Thursday that its investigation of the claims would continue, and that the investigator "will take all appropriate time required to conduct a comprehensive review."

Morse has called for an investigation of possible links between the college Democrats, the Neal campaign and the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Both Neal and the students have denied his campaign had any connection with the claims.

The state party referred students to an attorney associated with the party, The Eagle reported on Aug. 13. The Intercept later reported that the party asked the group to destroy communication records after it offered media training, and that the attorney is a former Neal donor.

"This was clearly coordinated," Morse said Tuesday evening following his concession speech. "This dropped right before early voting started, and it goes to the very top of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party leadership."

LGBTQ Victory Fund, a group that endorsed Morse, said that while it believes the allegations influenced the election outcome, the support Morse received showed promise that the LGBTQ community and its allies could combat similar tactics in the future.

"We believe that when someone comes forward, whether it be anonymously through a reporter or through a lawyer and says, `This happened and I felt this way,' those are very legitimate and need to be heard," said Senior Political Director Sean Meloy. "But to just manufacture allegations is a disservice not only to LGBTQ people but [also to] actual victims of violence and assault."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.